WASHINGTON – Sunday's MLS Cup final between the New England Revolution and Houston Dynamo promises to be as hard-fought as last year's title game between the same two teams.
In MLS Cup '06 at Pizza Hut Park in Texas, the Dynamo prevailed 4-3 in a nail-biting penalty shootout after battling the Revs to a 1-1 draw for 120 minutes. Sunday at RFK Stadium, New England coach Steve Nicol and Houston coach Dominic Kinnear will once again lead teams that are well-organized and evenly matched.
However, some key factors could decide whether the Revolution end their title drought or the Dynamo ensure the trophy stays in Houston. Here's a rundown on what to watch for when MLS Cup '07 kicks off at noon ET.
THE JOSEPH/DE ROSARIO EFFECT
New England must make sure it dominates possession in midfield, as that is the best way of negating the effectiveness of Houston playmaker Dwayne De Rosario.
If Shalrie Joseph can impose himself on the game and find space to deliver dangerous passes, it will force De Rosario to help with marking duties and operate from a deeper position. However, if the Dynamo can gain control and allow De Rosario the license to roam, that could spell trouble for Nicol's men.
De Rosario likes to float out onto the flanks, creating doubt in a structured defense over who should be picking him up. He can also shoot from long distance if he is allowed a yard of space.
Joseph has been one of the most productive players in MLS this season and needs one more big performance if the Revs are to break their Cup final jinx. His power and heading ability cannot be questioned and his stamina and distribution could decide this game.
SHOULDER TO SHOULDER
Houston's backline is as hard as nails and is not afraid of imposing itself physically upon attackers. Revolution frontmen Taylor Twellman and Pat Noonan will have to be prepared to take their knocks early and stand shoulder to shoulder with tough guys Eddie Robinson and Wade Barrett.
Twellman and Noonan must not shy away from contact but they can't get themselves in dangerous positions to either earn free kicks or set up chances. For the Dynamo's defense, the key is to maintain its aggressive style without putting pressure on itself by committing too many fouls.
THE CHING THING
Brian Ching was the MVP of last year's final for the Dynamo with a vital goal and an all-around powerful display. However, he is a serious doubt for the game, having been unable to shake off a troublesome left calf injury.
His replacement, Nate Jaqua, doesn't have a commanding physical presence and is less of a scoring threat. New England's backline, led by MLS Defender of the Year winner Michael Parkhurst, has been outstanding throughout the playoffs and will feel confident in shutting out a Ching-free Houston lineup.
Which is the more powerful motivational force? Years of coming tantalizingly close but falling short, or the knowledge that you have come through in the clutch just 12 months ago?
The Revs have failed at the final hurdle more times than they care to remember and are desperate to win the franchise's first MLS Cup. Nicol has put together a team that was consistently impressive during the regular season and might have gained some confidence from winning the U.S. Open Cup in Dallas.
His opposite number, Kinnear, does not need to appeal to his players' emotions to get them ready for this one. He is likely to maintain a fairly low-key approach leading up to the game. New England outplayed Houston during stretches of the match last year but Houston remained tough and held its nerve when it counted.
Ching's expected absence could deplete the Dynamo just enough to push the Revolution over the top. New England wins 2-1 in extra time.